In the spring of 2022, as the Big Ten approached USC and UCLA about possibly leaving their historic Pac-12 home and joining the Midwest-based league, economic concerns were everywhere.
The Big Ten was looking at a multi-billion dollar media rights deal. The Pac-12, meanwhile, was headed toward negotiations with a limping football product.
No league team had made the College Football Playoff since Washington following the 2016 season. In the previous two seasons, just a single game (Oregon at Washington in 2021) not involving the L.A. schools generated an audience of over four million viewers.
West Coast football had little success, little buzz and seemingly little hope. Staying put meant possibly falling behind. As such, USC and UCLA jumped to the Big Ten starting in 2024. A year later, Oregon and Washington followed, despite receiving limited Big Ten revenue shares.
Meanwhile, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State announced they were moving to the Big 12 and a desperate Cal and Stanford took cut-rate deals to join the ACC. Only Washington State and Oregon State remained.
The blame was television money. Or the lack of it. Yet when everyone was considering their options, and in 2022 and 2023 when the remaining Pac-12 schools were seeking broadcast partners that could keep them viable, the product being offered was lackluster.
Months later, here we are, with eight Pac-12 teams ranked in the Top 25, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner (USC’s Caleb Williams) anchoring a historic group of exciting quarterbacks and the biggest draw in the sport, Deion Sanders, drawing in millions of viewers to Colorado games.
The Pac-12 may be on its final breaths, but these last gasps are brilliant ones, popular ones, and thrilling ones even.
And you have to wonder, if the 2023 season had occurred in, say, 2019 or 2020 or 2021, would any of this realignment happen? Wouldn’t a network, or multiple networks, have offered enough to keep the league intact?
“It’s the million-dollar question,” one Pac-12 associate athletic director said. “We were discussing this last week. We are a great television product right now. The last season is, ironically, our best season.”
If only the Pac-12 could have gone to market pitching the deepest and most exciting league in the country (even if just for one year). After all, none of the departing teams wanted to leave. They felt they had to for financial reasons.
So did an athletic conference that dates its roots back to 1915 wind up perishing because of … bad timing?
This may not be just some fluke year. Arguably no conference has benefited more from the relaxing of the transfer portal, which allowed players to switch schools without penalty.
For years the Pac-12 had seen top high school talent from its West Coast footprint flock toward the bigger brands and stadiums of the SEC and Big Ten. Now the trend has reversed with older players.
All these great Pac-12 quarterbacks are a big reason league teams have started 21-4, including notable victories (Utah over Florida, Washington State over Wisconsin, Washington over Boise State, Colorado over TCU and Nebraska).
Ten of the league’s 12 teams are starting transfers at quarterback.
That includes USC’s Caleb Williams (previous stop Oklahoma), Utah’s Cam Rising (Texas), Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders (Jackson State), Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana), Oregon’s Bo Nix (Auburn), Oregon State’s D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson) and Washington State’s Cameron Ward (Incarnate Word).
The portal has allowed talent to find its proper level. More mature players tend to consider what is important for their development, not just league affiliation, stadium sizes or brand fame. They’ve went out West.
Then there is the Prime Effect, where Deion Sanders has turned a once-woebegone Buffaloes program into the biggest story — and ratings driver — in the sport.
Their opener against TCU drew 7.26 million viewers. It would have ranked as the 10th-most watched regular season game in all of 2022 and higher than any Pac-12 game that season (Notre Dame-USC reached 6.68 million).
Colorado’s 36-14 victory over Nebraska is expected to produce a similar, if not superior number — broadcaster Joel Klatt said Monday that “close to 10 million” watched. Both ESPN’s "College GameDay" and Fox’s "Big Noon Kickoff Show" will broadcast live from Boulder this Saturday to hype up Colorado’s game with in-state rival Colorado State. ESPN is broadcasting the game, but Fox is sticking with CU for the third consecutive week anyway.
That’s how it may be this entire season. Everything will be revolving around the Pac-12 in a way it hasn’t for … maybe ever.
In two weeks Colorado travels to Oregon, UCLA hits Utah and Oregon State visits Washington State. Currently each of those are Top 25 matchups.
On Sept. 30, USC and Caleb Williams head to Boulder to face Shedeur Sanders in a Heisman duel that will be one of the most hyped games of the season. Meanwhile Utah and Oregon State will duel in Corvallis.
Where reigning national champion Georgia and No. 2 Michigan aren’t slated to face a ranked team until Nov. 11 (Ole Miss and Penn State, respectively), it’s quite possible the Pac-12 will have at least one game featuring ranked teams every week of the season.
The league that has sat out the last six playoffs will fight to get two bids this year (the mighty SEC doesn’t look as mighty this season). It’s conference title game in Las Vegas will almost assuredly have two top-10 teams.
A resurgence is here. The stars are here. The transfer portal is here. An automatic bid to the playoff would have been coming. The viewers are here.
Yet the league is going away, all because of money.
If only this were a couple seasons ago, the money (or enough of it) likely would have been there.